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Review of Growth: The Celtic Cancer, the second Feasta Review

from James Robertson's December 2004 newsletter.

This fine collection of high-quality items (207 double-column pages), edited by Richard Douthwaite and John Jopling, and published in November 2004 by the Foundation for the Economics of Sustainability in Dublin, is something special. Items 1 and 4 have mentioned it already. It can be read online at www.feasta.org/documents/review2/index.htm. On that page, there's also an option to order it for £9.95 from Green Books.

Unlike Feasta Review No.1 (2001), this one has a title - "GROWTH: THE CELTIC CANCER: Why the global economy damages our health and society". But potential readers should not be misled into supposing the Review is about specifically Irish problems or that it is negatively critical.

People everywhere, in search of constructive responses to the damaging outcomes of today's economic "progress", will find a great deal of interest and value in it.

In "Unprecedented growth, but for whose benefit?", Elizabeth Cullen shows that, although the average income in Ireland doubled between 1989 and 2002, the nation's health and the bonds between its people have been seriously damaged.

The economic system, by polarising income distribution in the interests of economic growth, has become the greatest single threat to everyone's health and well-being. (On well-being also see Item 6 below.)

She recommends, among other things: that a basic income should be seriously considered as a way to reduce inequality and reward work that the present economic system fails to reward; and that we should examine why our economic system needs continuous economic growth to avoid collapsing.

How far, she asks, is that due to creating new money by lending it into circulation rather than putting it into the economy in other ways?

In "Freedom to be frugal", Molly Scott Cato reminds us that Adam Smith was aware of poverty's relative aspects: you are poor if you lack "not only the commodities which are indispensably necessary for the support of life, but whatever the custom of the country renders it indecent for creditable people, even the lower order, to be without".

But she asks us to question today's conventional wisdom that equates poverty with social exclusion. Her message is important: the relative definition of poverty and the dynamic of a capitalist society have a symbiotic relationship, which is catalysed by the advertising industry; getting away from this vicious circle would "represent a move towards development as emancipation, from oppressive economic structures and the ideologies that perpetuate them".

A similarly oppressive ideology equates failure to work for an employer with social exclusion, but "there is no reason why paid work should provide the only basis for our human identity".

Frank Rotering's paper on "Human Economics: putting humanity and the environment before profit" discusses the development of new economic theory and language based on the aim of maximising human wellbeing subject to ecological constraints.

Many difficulties arise - for example, how to decide on what aspect of health should be maximised. There is also the wider philosophical question whether aiming to maximise any particular thing makes sense.

On a different aspect of wellbeing, I welcome Douglas McCulloch's comment that "the division in [conventional economic] thinking between production and consumption may conceal important possibilities for restructuring our economies towards sustainability". Alvin Toffler's "prosumer" theory in "The Third Wave" (1980) still makes an important point.

David Fleming's "The Lean Economy" foresees an inevitable collapse of the worldwide market economy, owing to the depletion of oil and gas, the degradation of the environment and decline of social capital.

In the transformed political economy that could rise from the ashes, a "new domestication" will have to take place in which households will become as productively competent as industry now is.

People and localities will start to provide for themselves most of what they need, and local currencies will be absolutely fundamental. Social cohesion, strengthened by revived local culture, will underpin local economies.

I can mention only one or two of the insights in Stan Thekaekara's three fascinating articles - "People First: Justice in a Global Economy", "Just Change: Humanising Globalisation", and "Globalisation": Who Benefits?".

His many years of work for tribal people in South India have taught him that global economic institutions have aggravated their poverty and deprivation, not contributed to eradicating them.

In the conflict between capitalism and socialism and the concepts of individual ownership and state ownership, "what no one has talked about are the economies of indigenous people, which are based on the concept of NO ownership".

Why does money in one person's hand become capital - a means for investment and the generation of more money - while in another person's hand it is only cash to be spent? He describes his "Just Change" project, now a registered trust both in India and the UK.

It goes beyond Fair Trade to develop a structure of enterprise which involves all the participants - workers, consumers and investors - as shareholders entitled to a share in the surplus.

Richard Douthwaite explains "Why localisation is essential for sustainability". Many of the reasons are connected to the way the money system now operates in a globalised world, "rewarding those countries and companies that consume the Earth's resources most rapidly with incomes that enable them to purchase and destroy even more".

Many of the changes needed are to do with local currencies, local banking, local people investing locally, and other financial aspects of local economies. Once we recognise that "whenever a poorer country or region attempts to satisfy the needs of a wealthier one rather than attending to its own, its dependency and weakness are increased, ... we will begin to think in a radically different way about how our communities can become more sustainable".

Douthwaite is surely right that "there are two possible responses to the inequity, unsustainability and unreliability of the global economy. One is to seek to change the way it works, the other is to build alternatives to it. Both responses need to be pursued simultaneously". Hear! Hear! Those who suppose that this is an either/or, please take note.

Other contributions are about the lack of long-run statistical data for tracking Ireland's social health (Ana Carrie), environmental taxes in Germany (Hans Diefenbacher, Volker Teichert, and Stefan Wilhelmy), the arguments - which I question - for tradable quotas for carbon emissions in preference to energy taxes (The Editors), interest-free banking (Ana Carrie), a democracy for an ecological age (Mark Garavan), and two short pieces - on the need to reinstate political economy (Margaret Legum), and a Socratic dialogue between a Buddhist Lama and a Mainstream Economist (Nadia Johanisova).

Finally, there are eighteen good book reviews. They include a review by Brian Leslie of Bernard Lietaer's and Thomas Greco's recent books on money. If you support alternative currencies or support mainstream monetary reform and mistakenly suppose they are an either/or, please read it!

(John Rogers goes into the same question at greater length in "Two Sides of the Money Coin: Monetary Reform and Complementary Currencies", in the August 2004 issue of "Prosperity" - www.prosperityuk.com. He is Project Co-ordinator of the Wales Institute for Community Currencies. Both camps should take seriously his conclusion that "there is no either/or, only a cosmic both/and".)

To sum up. Feasta Review No.2 would provide excellent material for a whole course on a new economics for a humane, sustainable future. Just dipping into it makes for rewarding reading too.


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